Taking the HSK Level 5 Exam

HSK logoI took the HSK Level 5 exam in early December, and I’d like to share my experience to anyone interested in taking it. The HSK is a Chinese proficiency exam aimed at foreigners learning Mandarin. It is a standardized test that provides employers and Chinese universities proof of your proficiency level. Anyone interested in measuring their language ability can also take it.

At the start of the year, I had posted in “Challenge for 2016: Taking the HSK” the reasons for writing the exam. My main reason was to serve as a source of motivation for studying Chinese and to improve my Chinese language ability. Passing the exam was not something I needed for work or academic study, so I didn’t have as much pressure as those who needed to pass it.

First, I’ll discuss how I prepared for the exam before I dive into the experience of writing the exam. If you want to jump directly into the details of the exam day, then you can skip below to “Day of the Exam.”

How I Prepared For The Exam

I purchased HSK learning materials from Amazon.com that came direct from China. Though the workbooks were rather inexpensive, it took almost a month to receive them. The books I bought were part of the New HSK Preparation series published by Peking University Press. I got three workbooks in total: one for reading, another for writing, and a third that contained mock exams. I didn’t get a book for listening because the user reviews on Amazon claimed the audio didn’t match the text. Since the mock exam book came with a CD for the listening portions, I felt it was sufficient.

HSK Level 5 Workbooks

These workbooks served as my main study material apart from the vocabulary list I downloaded online. Mostly, I could maintain a consistent study routine by doing a few exercises from the workbooks each day. This was key to keeping the content fresh in my head. Whenever I chose the wrong answer, I would ask my Chinese language buddy for help to make sure I understood why it was incorrect.

Reading Preparation

One of the first things I noticed about the Level 5 workbooks was that everything was in Chinese, even the explanations. This might seem daunting for anyone who’s not used to reading Chinese and relies on English explanations. At first, it was a struggle for me to get through a paragraph, but over time it became easier to read and understand the text.

The added benefit of everything being in Chinese was I had no choice but to read it, and that contributed to my reading practice. It makes sense that there is no English in the workbooks, as the Level 5 exam itself is all in Chinese, including the instructions.

This series of workbooks was helpful for preparing for the HSK; however, I felt the writers included too many tricky questions. These types of questions gave me the impression that the exam was much more difficult than it actually was. It also made learning the material confusing and sometimes frustrating. The actual exam has no tricky questions at all, so these types of questions served no helpful purpose.

Apart from this criticism I have, I found the many tips to be helpful along with the resources provided at the back of the reading workbook. These included a list of synonyms, common verb and noun pairs, and grammar patterns.

Writing Preparation

To prepare for the writing portion of the exam, I used the sample questions provided in the writing workbook. Instead of writing the responses in the book, I typed them since I had decided to take the computer-based test.

Initially, I emailed all my writing to my language buddy for correction, but since I was writing something almost every day, I didn’t want to burden her. So, I posted my writing on Lang-8 instead and used my time with my language buddy to go over the sample questions I got wrong. This seemed to work well as I could review corrections the next day and spend more time on difficult questions with my language buddy at our weekly online chats.

Listening Preparation

Since I knew listening was likely my strongest ability, I wasn’t too concerned for preparing for this part of the exam. I listened to a lot of radio programs and watched online videos and TV shows in Chinese for practice. It also helped to be a part of a Mandarin learners Toastmasters group, which I took part in most of the meetings.

As mentioned before, the mock exam workbook included an audio CD for the listening portion, which I felt was sufficient to help me prepare.

One gripe I have with the mock exam audio is it’s much shorter than the 30 minutes that should be given; the audio files can be as much as ten minutes shorter. I’m not sure if the publishers intended this to be a study strategy, but I didn’t find it helpful.

The delay between each question is shorter, which makes it difficult to read all the options and answer the question before the next dialogue begins. Consequently, I edited the audio files to make it more in line with the standard time allotted for the exam.

Month Leading Up To Exam

My plan was to take the last exam of the year on December 4th. Registration for the HSK can’t be made until a month before the exam date. Once I registered for the exam, the countdown to my year-long effort of realizing my goal began. I did mock exams with other language learners who were also interested in taking the HSK. Between weekly mock exam sessions with others, I would also do a mock exam on my own.

The first mock exam I did was from the workbook I had. After reviewing my borderline results, I considered postponing the exam. However, I later realized we timed the reading portion incorrectly, which made it difficult to finish all the questions. Also, the audio file was much shorter than it should have been.

After doing many mock exams from different sources, I discovered a wide variation in difficulty. Fortunately, a friend had copies of past exams and this helped to get a better sense of what to expect.

Two weeks before the exam date, I received a confirmation email from the test center and instructions of what to bring and when to show up. This was also when I discovered the test center would conduct the exams for Levels 1, 3, and 5 concurrently in the same room, while exams for Levels 2, 4, and 6 would be held at an earlier time.

The night before the exam, I was at a gathering with friends to celebrate the holiday season. I had intended on leaving early to do last-minute studying, but I lost track of time and didn’t return home until late at night. The only thing I could do was review the vocabulary words that were still unfamiliar to me.

Perhaps that wasn’t such a good idea since I wasn’t able to sleep well that night. Instead, I couldn’t stop thinking about what I needed to remember for the exam.

Day of the Exam

I struggled to wake up the next morning and was thankful my exam wasn’t until the afternoon. Over breakfast, I reviewed the vocabulary words again and the grammar patterns listed in the workbook. Then, I tried to relax with a short meditation session. When it came time for the exam, I was ready to go.

Once at the test center, I received my admission ticket required for logging into the computer-based exam. We were all assigned to a particular computer station with a set of headphones. The proctor instructed us to raise our hands if we had any issues during the exam.

The first part of the exam was the listening section, and I had no problems with it. I could hear the audio clearly and control the volume to the desired level. Most questions I answered as soon as the dialogue ended. Often, I waited for the countdown timer to wind down so I could move on to the next question.

At the end of the listening section, I had five extra minutes to review all my answers. This didn’t help much as I couldn’t listen to the audio again.

The next section was reading. A countdown timer informed me of when this section would begin. I could also click a button to start right away. After a few deep breaths, I dived in. I knew my biggest challenge was finishing all the questions within the 45-minute time frame. The problem wasn’t the difficulty of the questions, but more with my reading speed. I had been working to improve my reading speed over the past month, but any significant increase simply required more time.

As soon as I started, I jumped straight into the second half because I knew it comprised longer passages with three or four follow-up questions. To tackle these first instead of last was easier because I could answer several questions at one go. It was also easier to leave the shorter passages towards the end because they were easier to skim and answer quickly.

This strategy seemed to help as I ended up guessing the last few questions before time was up. In previous mock exam trials, I sometimes had as many as eight or ten questions I couldn’t finish in time.

Finally, the last part of the exam was the writing section. During my mock exams, I felt comfortable with the writing portion. I often had plenty of time remaining to check over my answers.

However, during the actual exam, I was thrown off by the typing input. Although it was helpful that different input methods for typing Chinese were available, including traditional characters, it differed from what I was used to on my laptop. It seemed I could only type one or two characters at a time. Typing three or more characters did not produce a pop-up display of characters I could select.

This unexpected hurdle meant I was eating up time scrolling through the pop-up list to make sure I was selecting the correct characters. Sometimes, I couldn’t find the character and had to give up.

I understand why the typing input operates this way—it’s likely to test you know the characters and aren’t relying on the pinyin input too much. As a result, I didn’t have as much time to review my answers before the exam ended.

Overall, the benefit of taking the computer-based test was being able to type Chinese. I’m less confident about writing the characters correctly by hand.

Another benefit is not needing to fill in rectangles with precision when answering questions. A simple click of the mouse sufficed. It was also nice to have the ability to bookmark a question so you could return to it easily.

On the flip side, if I was more confident about writing Chinese by hand, then the paper version would have been better. The reason is I wouldn’t need to waste time searching for the right character; I could have written it. Though I encountered no technical issues (someone behind me did), the paper version eliminates any possibility of that happening.

Please keep in mind this is just my experience of taking the computer-based exam. I don’t know if all exam centers operate in the same fashion. It may have been more efficient for this test center to conduct three levels of the exam in the same room; however, I found this to be a disadvantage for higher levels.

The test duration varies for each level, with the lower levels requiring less time, so as soon as test takers finish, they can leave. This causes countless distractions, especially when test takers speak with the proctor before leaving the room.

Receiving the Test Results

Test results were available 15 days after the exam date on the same website used to register for the HSK.

To my relief, I passed the exam. I got 255 points out of 300 total points. Although, there’s still room for improvement, it’s not bad for a first attempt. As I had expected, I did the best in the listening section, followed by reading, and then writing.

Lessons Learned

This experience of preparing for and taking the HSK indeed raised my Chinese language ability to the next level. It was exactly what I had hoped for when I decided to take the exam. Even if I hadn’t passed it, I’m certain I would have learned more than if I hadn’t committed to taking the HSK.

Now that I have taken the exam, I also know what areas I need to work on—improving my reading speed and writing. I also shouldn’t rely too much on the pinyin input when typing. Another important realization I’ve made is getting copies of past exams rather than simulated ones, as the difficulty level can vary. Also, it might help to do mock exams in different locations, so distractions will have little effect at the actual test center.

In Conclusion

If you’re not sure whether to take the HSK or you’re feeling stuck with your Chinese, then I encourage you to try it. Why not? You have nothing to lose and a lot to gain. Also, if you think the HSK will be too hard, you should know the exam is rather straightforward. There were no tricky questions. And, passing the exam only requires getting 60% of the total points.

Whether you pass doesn’t even matter. The benefits you gain from studying for the exam are well worth it. Your Chinese will improve by leaps and bounds, and you will gain a great sense of achievement for making the effort. The test results will also help guide you in the areas where you need improvement.

I hope the lessons I’ve learned from this experience and what I’ve shared about the exam have been helpful to you. Take the opportunity to set a goal for completing the HSK. You might be surprised to find how much you can accomplish!


HSK Exam Registration Website

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2 Responses to “Taking the HSK Level 5 Exam

  • Thanks, Michelle…Your essay is very well organized, clearly expressed, and very informative and helpful…even fun to read! Congratulations
    for passing level 5. 好好学习,天天向上!

    • michellerlee
      7 years ago

      Thanks Tom! I hope you found the information helpful.

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